‘My mother Pattu’ was the Asian regional winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
My mother Pattu graced our lives largely with her absence, for which my father and I and, to a lesser extent, grandma, were profoundly grateful. She descended upon us once a month to collect her allowance from grandma, loot the pantry, curse my father and cuff me on the ear. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when she went away, except for grandma, who wept in secret for the daughter she could not stand to live with.
When there was no Pattu, there was light. There was fun: cycling to the food stalls near the market with my mates for the best kuay teow ever in Mambang; playing badminton in the cemented patch in front of Ahmad’s house; walking home with Rubiah after a party, together with the boys – Wong Seng Chye, Manoharan, Raju and Abdullah, who all fancied me like crazy; meeting up with the ‘gang’ in the porch in Mr Goh’s house, talking, laughing, eating kuaci and drinking orange crush. It meant twice-weekly Carnatic singing classes with Auntie Sundari, a few doors away from home. Pattu tried unsuccessfully to stop my classes claiming they would give me ideas above my station for ‘after all, you are going to marry a beggar’. Aunt Sundari’s was one of the few houses in town to which Pattu was never invited.
When there was no Pattu, I could wear my bra from the shop instead of the tight-fitting scratchy camisole tops grandma ran up on her sewing machine. They flattened my breasts and I hated them with a passion matched only by Pattu’s insistence that I wore them.
There is a single framed black and white photograph of my parents in the cupboard in Grandma’s room. It was taken after their marriage in 1950. A Chinese man and an Indian woman in Indian wedding dress; my father looked like a bit player in a promotional shoot for some cheap movie where the budget did not run to hiring a real actor. With a slight build and delicately beautiful despite a ravaged expression, my father sat rigid, facing the camera. His already white hair was brushed back from his forehead, settling just above his shoulders. He wore thick gold studs in his ears, white shirt, white veshti, black leather shoes. He was not smiling. Pattu stood beside him, her sculpted features marred by the insolence in her eyes and a sneer tipping her lips. The heavy Kanjipuram silk sari that she wore could not hide the swelling of her belly. One hand rested on her hip. The other, more brazen, she placed on her husband’s shoulder. Even the photo resonated with her energy, her restlessness. She looked all woman, not fourteen.
In 1965, twenty years after the Japanese Occupation ended in Malaysia, my father remained in thrall to the spectre of the past which haunted him as his constant companion, memory breathing into his sleep, where his body thrashed his bed, filling the room with screams and then whimpering cries for mercy. When this happened, grandma and I would rush to his room and grandma would apply the sacred ash on his forehead and his chest. She said he was remembering the time he worked on the Siamese death railway during the war. At such times, he struggled between sleep and wakefulness, trapped in a hell-hole, unable to cross over to sanity, his body drenched with sweat, fat globs of water oozing from the pores of his soul as he begged the Japanese soldiers to kill him, once and for all, in the name of God. Till the day he died, he could not bear to look at a Japanese man, not even in a photograph in the newspapers.
When the war was over, my Indian grandpa found him wandering in the streets, a young half-dead, skeletal-thin Chinese man with a tortured face and grey white hair, who refused to speak of his life before the war. Grandpa took him home and looked after him as if he were a baby. Except for a three-month strain, the men were devoted to each other until grandpa passed away eight years later.
Frail, yet with a cigarette constantly on his lips, my father safeguarded his Chinese identity as an entity separate from his life with grandma and me. He ate Chinese dinners cooked and delivered by Cheong Kee Restaurant in town. He wore striped pyjamas tailored by Nam Fook Tailors in Jalan Bandar. He listened to the Chinese channel on the radio, drank Chinese tea, read Chinese newspapers and the Straits Times and steadfastly refused to talk of anything from the time before he became my father. ‘Why do you want to know what is no longer important,’ he would ask, not looking at me. I was abjectly devoted to him, terrified of saying anything that could bring down the shutters over his face.
When I was ten, I asked Pattu if she loved me. ‘Love you, Lalita?’ She drawled. ‘Stupid question. As stupid and ugly as you. I was fourteen when I had you – that big horrid thing that swelled my stomach, gave me heartburn and cost me my life.’
‘Oh come now, Pattu, surely . . .’ Grandma’s voice tapered off.
‘She cost me my life, amma,’ Pattu insisted. ‘Everything came to an end with you, idiot girl. And don’t forget, ten hours of pain before you were born.’
‘It was a very short labour. Even the doctor was surprised,’ Grandma said.
‘No, ten hours. So much pain. God, I was sick of you already.’ Pattu boxed my ears and turned away.
I was shocked at first that a mother would not automatically love her baby but it was a secret relief to hear her words. I was free then to hate Pattu without guilt.
Pattu was the bile that I retched out after each of her visits. She was the screaming in my head whenever I could not answer her quickly enough, receiving a sharp slap as reward. She was the poison leaching my blood, my bones, and that was the real nightmare for if you discounted a few details like my hair, skin colour or eyes, I was a dead ringer for her. I could not bear the horror of it. There was nothing of my father in me, nothing, for he was not my father. Everyone knew that story. I knew it soon enough, in the way children absorb stories almost through osmosis, though papa never spoke of it, nor did grandma.
I knew how Pattu silently pointed to papa when her parents discovered she was pregnant. I knew how grandpa beat him with his fists, yelling the pain that rose from his stomach: ‘I saved your life, you Chinese bastard, I saved your bloody life and you do this to me?’ I know that papa did not fight back. He merely repeated: ‘I have never touched her.’
I heard how grandpa clutched my father’s feet and wept when I was born: I had green eyes and hair the colour of wheat.
I never called her amma. She was always Pattu right from the time she ran away with a travelling salesman, two weeks after the thirty-day lying-in after giving birth. But before running away, she helped herself to cash from grandpa’s strongbox and several gold chains. Six months later, she returned, sans money or gold or salesman, a seething brittle creature who, the neighbours said, pinched me black and blue when she thought no one was looking. After that, it was a series of ding-dongs, run away with somebody or other, with whatever valuables she could lay her hands on, come back empty-handed, run away, come back again, each time quicker to anger, feverish discontent biting at her ankles until grandpa gave up and bought her a house ten miles from Mambang where she could live alone and do as she pleased.
There were no secrets to be had in our home, in our neighbourhood. Everything was out in the open – who drank on the sly (Auntie Judith, who wrapped her daily beer bottle in a newspaper and sneaked it home); who demanded money under the table for doing his job as a clerk in the government (Abdullah, Hassan and Chandran); who beat his wife (that list was too long) and who got himself a mistress (Ah Seng); who went to the bomoh for desperate spells to keep her straying husband (Fauziah, whose husband was eying a third wife); and who was Pattu’s latest lover. There were no secrets, true, but none was paraded in the open. In public, we were deeply conservative and so staunchly upright you could balance a spoon on us. All except Pattu.
There’s a story that has turned into local legend: when Pattu was at the market one day, she overheard a man-about-town making unfortunate remarks about her morals. Pattu tucked her sari into her waist, strode up to the man, grabbed his shirt, and thrashed him. ‘Oh, how he tried to run, Lalita,’ said Auntie Jansi, a neighbour, when she related the story to grandma and me. ‘Like a whirling demon she was, she punched him and tore off his clothes and she stomped on him and described his manhood with choice profanities.’ I looked bewildered. ‘Bad words, girl,’ she explained. ‘Pattu is many things, but you know what, that day, when she beat up that miserable bugger, it was like all the wife-beaters and all the snarky men got a taste of their own medicine. My heart glowed.’
I must have scowled for she continued. ‘Pattu – Pattu is just Pattu. She’ll give us her last dollar without a thought . . .’
‘Then she’ll come home and give me a slap,’ I said. ‘But no more. Papa said . . .’
‘Hush, Lalita,’ Grandma stopped me, her eyes pleading.
‘Even the beggars adore her. She’s welcome everywhere except over there . . .’ Auntie Jansi flicked her head at the general direction of Aunt Sundari’s house.
‘Pattu is a generous woman,’ Grandma agreed. ‘She’s good in the heart. She loves everyone. It’s just her family she can’t stand.’
‘No grandma,’ I said. ‘It’s just papa and me she can’t stand.’
Grandma sighed. ‘She craves the things she can’t get. But I won’t let her hit you any more, Lalita. No, enough already. I mean it.’
‘Why does she do it?’ I asked. Grandma looked away.
‘Think back to last Friday,’ Aunt Jansi said.
We had been walking back from temple that evening, a group of us from the neighbourhood. Papa was away in Kuala Lumpur. The women were draped in saris; I wore my silk pavadai. We wore flowers in our hair, bangles on our wrists. Grandma’s gold jimikis glittered in my ears. In the temple, at least three boys kept looking at me when they were supposed to be praying. My cheeks flushed, my eyes shining, I felt high as a kite.
As we crossed the street from the temple, we saw Pattu talking to a man, in the shadowed doorway of a shophouse. We could not see their faces clearly but Pattu was leaning against the doorway, her hand glancing light on his shoulder. I knew though I could not see, that she would have arched her eyebrows, a smile playing on her lips, laughter waiting impatient at her throat. After all, I knew my mother. I did not know the man though. There was a dignity about him, uncommon in most of Pattu’s men friends.
‘Let’s take another route,’ I said at the same time grandma called out: ‘Pattu!’ Pattu turned and her eyes narrowed when she zeroed in on me. My heart dropped like a stone.
‘Namaskaram,’ the man greeted us. ‘Who is the child?’
‘My granddaughter, Lalita,’ grandma said, her voice uneasy, recognising too late, the expression in Pattu’s eyes.
‘Beautiful child,’ he said, ‘like the goddess Lalita herself.’
‘What are you all waiting for? Go home,’ Pattu’s voice was a machete slicing me wide open, spilling blood. We straggled home in silence. Once inside the house, grandma and I waited. I began to sob. ‘Maybe she won’t come, Lalita,’ grandma said. ‘Maybe she has already gone back. It’s late.’
She came, her hands fuelled with bitter rage. I did not make a sound. Grandma shrieked, ‘Aiyoh, aiyoh, aiyoh!’ tears falling down her cheeks. Afterwards, she tried to rub some ointment on my body but I pushed her away. ‘You didn’t stop her,’ I railed. ‘I wish she would die. Just die, you understand? Just die and leave us in peace.’
Papa’s face was white when he saw the bruises. ‘If you let her touch my daughter again, we will both leave this house and you will never see us.’ Grandma wrung her hands and cried. For the first time in my life, I didn’t believe a word papa said. Didn’t he know Pattu hit me every single time she visited? Did he think spending his days at work and his evenings in the Chinese Recreation Club gave him reason not to know?
A week later, The Sound of Music was finally playing in our town. The excitement among my friends – gosh, it was like a fever. We knew all the words to all the songs. We sang them during recess in school and in between classes. We were going to catch the afternoon matinee on Friday since school finished early. Rubiah had bought the tickets. I was to cycle to her house and then together we would go to Meena’s where three other girls would be waiting. After the movie, it was to be ice kacang at Uncle Wong’s stall in time-honoured tradition. Papa was in Kuala Lumpur again, this time for a medical appointment with a specialist. He would be away for five days but had already given me money for the cinema ticket plus a bit extra. My heart would not stop singing that day, I was that delirious.
I rushed home after school on Friday to change out of my uniform. Pattu was there. She was at the dining table, with our neighbours, Auntie Jansi and Auntie Leela, waited on by grandma who, I noticed, had made her daughter’s favourite dishes. They had finished their lunch. Pattu took out a wad of cash from inside her blouse, peeled off a few notes and handed them to Auntie Leela. ‘Here, Leela, buy something for yourself and for God’s sake, hide the damn money from that drunken lout of yours.’ Auntie Leela’s face shone. Pattu smiled, looked up, saw me and her face changed. ‘What are you looking at, sour face?’ I had told myself I would never let Pattu beat me again but when I saw her, my insides shrank and my heart thudded so violently I thought they would be able to hear it. My hands shook so I had to hold my schoolbag tight to hide the trembling.
‘Gr-grandma, I-I’m g-going to take my shower n-now.’
‘Oh yes, child,’ grandma smiled. ‘You’re going to see the film today, right?’ Too late, she clamped her mouth shut.
‘What film?’ Pattu wanted to know.
‘Nothing, Pattu. I made a mistake,’ grandma said.
‘What film, amma?’
Auntie Jansi stepped in. ‘It’s an English movie, Pattu. The Sound of Music. Very famous movie. Every kid is singing the songs. Everybody wants to see the movie including me, my children and even my mother-in-law. That’s all. It’s nothing to get uptight about.’ She looked at me. ‘You go bathe, child.’
‘Oh ho! Going to see an English film. Going to dress up nicely is it, this English missy, to go out with boys to watch an English film?’ Pattu drawled. ‘Go, child, go and bathe and get ready.’ Pattu’s mouth curved into a small smile even as her eyes turned hard and I knew then that she had known all the time about me going to see the film.
‘Grandma!’ My throat choked.
‘Go and get ready,’ grandma said. As I walked up the stairs, my legs felt like lead. I heard grandma cajoling. ‘Please Pattu, the child has been talking of nothing else but this film for weeks. Don’t ruin it for her.’
I bathed and wore my newest outfit. Papa had bought it in Kuala Lumpur – a thin, delicate peacock blue pleated skirt, daringly three inches above the knee and a white blouse with a lace collar. I looked in the mirror and saw my face, pale, puffed up. Eyes dulled. Perhaps I could hide in the room until Pattu left, I thought. I could still catch the movie another day. I looked in the mirror again and saw my face mutating into my grandma’s. Even as I dithered, a strange sensation, blazing white with cold ferocity swept over me.
‘We’ll see if she dares to go,’ Pattu was saying softly as I came downstairs. ‘When I’m done with that missy . . .’
‘I am going.’ There, I said it, though my voice wobbled a bit.
‘Ho-ho, the worm turns!’ Pattu looked me up and down. ‘Look at the skirt, so short, you can see her arse. Why bother to wear it, huh?’
In a second, she was in front of me. Her hand grabbed my skirt. There was a ripping sound. She raised her hand again. My hands caught it in mid-air and I pushed her away. Her other hand swung up and yanked my hair hard.
I felt no pain, nothing but that white cold anger that coursed through my body. I sensed rather than saw, Auntie Jansi and Auntie Leela pulling a cursing, shrieking Pattu away and sticking her on a chair. ‘Have you gone mad, Pattu?’ Auntie Jansi. I sensed grandma wailing, ‘Aiyoh, aiyoh, aiyoh’, hitting her head with hands. I sensed it in slow motion like someone in a fog for my vision wasn’t very clear all at once. I knew though, what I wanted to do. I took my father’s walking stick and I stood above Pattu and I raised it high with both hands. I did not say a word but there were noises growling at my throat. Grandma flung herself at Pattu and shouted: ‘No, Lalita!’
The stick remained in my hands. ‘Don’t become like her!’ Grandma said.
The stick was stuck to my hands. I could not lower it. Pattu’s voice in the background: ‘She wants to hit me? I’ll kill her.’ And Auntie Jansi: ‘Shut up, Pattu.’
‘You’re not Pattu, you understand? Lali?’ Grandma said.
It took me some time before I threw the stick down. Grandma turned to Pattu. ‘What is the matter with you? You want to kill your own daughter?’
‘I’m not her daughter.’ I said, rubbing my head. It throbbed with shooting pains.
‘No, you’re just a bloody whore who took away my life. You and your father.’
Grandma said, ‘Pattu, not this again . . .’
‘Whore, I say. Whore!’ Pattu used theyvadiye, a Tamil word for whore that was unspeakable, a word that once uttered meant there was no going back for speaker and listener. Spittle sprayed from her lips as the women looked at her in horror. Grandma pressed her hand against Pattu’s mouth.
‘I’m not the whore here, Pattu.’ My voice was level.
‘Pattu, from the time you were twelve,’ Grandma knelt before her daughter, her face wet. ‘I could do nothing with you. No tears or threats or begging could shift the lies. Telling your father you were doing needlework with Judith when you were partying with her and the white sailors. I tried locking you in your room . . .’
‘. . . but I just climbed out of the window.’ Pattu rocked herself: ‘It was a prison, amma. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t go there. Don’t talk to boys. Don’t dress like that.’
‘It’s the Indian Handbook on Bringing up Girls, Pattu,’ Auntie Jansi said. ‘Every Indian family had it.’
‘I just wanted some bloody fun, Jansi. What’s wrong with that? Instead, I got the family honour constantly shoved down my throat. Couldn’t breathe.’ Pattu took a deep breath. ‘Still can’t,’ she said as if to herself.
Grandma said, ‘I hid everything from your father. He never knew. Not about the white sailors who plied you with chocolates or the times you slipped away from home to go to the cinema with some boy . . .’
‘Don’t talk to me about my father. That man stopped me from going to school. School, Jansi, can you believe it?’
Grandma was about to say something but Pattu waved at her to be quiet. ‘The nuns actually came to my house and begged him to let me continue. Said I was the best student in the class – that I could amount to something. But he –’
‘You had reached puberty, Pattu. Your father was old-fashioned,’ Grandma said.
‘I could have become a teacher, amma! Or a police inspector! I could have become someone!’
Grandma hit her forehead with her palm. Auntie Leela made murmuring, sympathetic noises.
Pattu shrugged. ‘Those white men were a different world. You know what, if one of them had said, ‘Come away with me, girl’ I’d have gone, without a thought. Like that.’ She snapped her fingers.
I did not want to listen anymore. I felt wiped out, emptied, without any thought or sensation. Except, one small part of me kept going back to that young girl, a little younger than me, who tried to escape from her cage only to find it growing bigger and bigger. I walked to my room to change my clothes.
Auntie Leela’s voice floated over: ‘Pattu, you are the most generous friend I have, but when you curse and beat Lalita, it’s not right . . .’
There was silence. Then Pattu said, ‘She’s living the life I wanted.’
I paused on the stairs. Pattu said, ‘I won’t have it, I tell you. I won’t let her.’ There was silence for a bit and then she laughed. ‘She’ll marry a bloody beggar, I’ll make sure of that. You just wait and see.’
I selected a bright green skirt, folding up the waist several times so that it was five inches above my knees. I cycled with my friends to the cinema to watch The Sound of Music. I could not remember a single scene from the movie.
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